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On Andrew Sullivan & Conservative Values

Which Smoke Screen Are We Using Now?

By Perry Brass

pbrass.jpg - 40.73 K Perry Brass
Photo by Robert Giard
Several years ago when my lover and I were living in a rented farm house in Republican, WASPiest Connecticut, our landlord came in to negotiate a new lease with us. I invited him to sit down, and he told me he had been sitting all day, so he'd stand, while we sat—in other words, he could now "talk down" to us.

"First," he said, "before we talk about anything, I want to tell you that I'm sick of the way you guys drive into your driveway." I looked at him. What? "You speed past our house, and I'm scared one day you're going to hit one of our dogs. You know, they're getting old and they're—"

Ah, I thought, while he stood, spitting words at us: interesting smoke screen. I had complained to him that his teenage kids were the ones speeding through our drive way—we were the ones with the old blind dogs—but I knew right then that any arguing about this issue would only be a great screen to raise the rent behind.

If I argued, he'd try to raise it even higher—"We have to protect ourselves"— and if I conceded the point and said, "Sorry," he'd get to raise it to exactly the point he wanted, conceding that since we were being good enough little boys, he'd be nice enough to raise it only about 15% more than was called for. By the time I figured this all out, he got his rent raise, and my lover and I could only ask ourselves what new smoke screen would our landlord be hiding behind next.

But it was a great lesson. First, make sure you stand when they stand: don't let people talk down to you. And second, watch out for smoke screens. Any smart person in power will raise them—it is what keeps them there—and nine out of ten times, the smoke screen is usually in the form of how much *you* are hurting them.

sulnytimes.gif - 39.53 K In Andrew Sullivan's neat little recent cover article in the New York Times Magazine (October 11, 1998. Title: "The Scolds: it's not just Ken Starr. The conservative movement itself has lost sight of the principle of government restraint and of the boundary between public and private, the very things that made it a successful force in America.") Sullivan gets suckered into every smoke screen the American right can throw up, and even while eating smoke and choking on it, he still buys the whole act, as if it were more than smoke.

Sorry, Mr. Sullivan. Smoke is still smoke. In the Times, Sullivan goes on record (after long being the right's favorite English "quare boy") that his old buddies have turned into nothing more than self-righteous "scolds."

He decries the Starr Report's "prurient, lip-pursing moralism." He says about the too-long-with-us Monica Lewinsky affair: "Proof of perjury or obstruction of justice required none of this, as most Americans immediately understood. This moral obsessiveness was the creation of Kenneth Starr and something far larger . . . It was the creation of a conservatism become puritanism, a conservatism that has long lost sight of the principles of privacy and restraint, modesty and constitutionalism, which used to be its hallmarks."

(I know, you are asking yourself: "Since when was this P. & R. stuff the meat of American conservatism?" You'd have to start digging through history with a fine spade and a hat pin to find many, if any, examples of American conservativism's "principles of privacy and restraint."

Mostly what you'd come up with, no matter how deep you dig, are the usual examples of really big cover-ups—as opposed to Bill Clinton's putzy little ones; the usual duplicity and untruths—racism as states rights, for instance; and the long-honored traditions of keeping Jews, blacks, and queers too "funny" to hide, out of country clubs.)

So, Sullivan has started beating the usual meat around the block again: American conservatism is no longer acting "conservative." It is no longer "intellectual." It is now "puritanical." It has become in the old parlance, "old maidish."

In the latest Ken Starr-Bill Clinton "Hide-Whose-Salami?" game, conservatism has "lost sight of privacy and constraint"? Duh? Andrew, wake up. Smell the salami. Next, who knows what you're going to be discovering brand new just for us? Maybe the bicycle, the umbrella, and vanilla ice cream?

asullivan.jpg - 12.08 K Andrew Sullivan For the record: there has never been anything inherent in conservatism—either from its tasteful, upper crusty, boarding school forebears or its know-nothing Dogpatch relatives—that was ever on the side of "privacy and restraint." The only exceptions: it has always been on the side of keeping money "private," and restrained to the pockets of those who have it.

Aside from money, everything else has been up for grabs. All you had to do was live through America's infatuation with Joe McCarthy in the 50s (which the kids want to believe was a "cool" period: all about freedom, chino pants and the "beatniks) to figure that one out. There was nothing restrained about Joe McCarthy, or for that matter any of the other conservatives who've come after him, except for their restraints on telling where the money came from.

Having grown up in the 50s and 60s in one of the most conservative cities in America, Savannah, Georgia, which—despite its modern, touristy, drag-queenery—was for decades the home of the Georgia Conservative Party, I can vouch for that.

There was not a bedroom or bankbook in Savannah that the either the cops, the fundamentalists, or the politicians would not get into if they could. There was a "gentlemen's agreement" between the nice people who lived in the big white houses and the Ku Klux Klan not to invade each other's territories.

The only "conservative restraint" was against the truth, which a small number of queers and/or "nigger-loving" Jews occasionally came out with. A constant, vigilant war was waged against "deviancy" of any sort, and all those pretty little squares in Savannah are still littered with the bodies of anyone who, for any reason, edged over the ever-tasteful "conservative restraint" that I grew up around.

The only nice thing I can say about this period—period—is that Georgia's (and for the most part, America's) conservatives were usually too interested in racial politics—and trying to keep that down, via "States rights" (and "Individual Rights of Association")—to get involved with who was giving head to whom, unless, of course, the head became public in any way. In that case, it would be neatly sliced off.

Sullivan goes on to point out that sex, homosexuality, and "privacy" problems have become the new bugaboos and obsessions of the Right. (Here again, he must be discovering, freshly for us, vanilla ice cream. *New*?) But the real story, he goes on to say, if you're smart enough to know it—and he is—is abortion.

Abortion is always on the back burner of any good conservative's kitchen. Always on a low boil—ready to explode—because abortion, as conservative mouthpiece William Krystal (son of McCarthy era favorite Irving) puts it, "is the focal point for liberalism's simultaneous assault on self-government, morals, and nature. So, challenging the judicially imposed regime of abortion-on-demand is key to a conservative reformation in politics, in morals, and in beliefs."

Once you get behind this smoke screen, which Sullivan can't, you see that abortion (that is, ending it on demand) will, to the deeply limited conservative mind, lay all the American ducks in a row: the family will now become cohesive again.

Ladies will not be able to wander far from their legally wed hubbies. Teen kiddies will not be able to fiddle with the knockwurst anymore. And we will either be able to go back to the idea of daddies as sole breadwinners; or at least to earnest heterosexual working couples who are nailed together no matter what, because if the Mrs. gets pregnant, she'll have to have the kid.

End of discussion; end of story.

Of course, this smoke screen is easy as hell to blow aside. Just one big ol' poof (sorry for the pun, Andrew, we know what a big, ol' poof is in your native land) and it's gone. Too bad Sullivan is not big enough to deliver it, but as he pointed out, the number of abortions is actually going down along with our crime rate.

The abortion rate is plummeting because most people—women in particular—can now get birth control info and accouterments (something Sullivan's Catholic Church fought tooth and nail to keep inside the confessional booth) and because a lot of unmarried women are now having and keeping their kids.

The flip side of abortion—"artificially" terminating pregnancy—is "artificially" producing pregnancy, through in vitro fertilization. The rate of invitro fertilizations is going through the roof, but conservatives (with the exception of the Catholic Church which is sure it's the new Devil's playground), don't want to deal with this kind of gadgetry at all.

New fertility technologies will open up procreation to everyone, including queers. This presents an issue the anti-abortion people are aware of, but must step over lightly, since there is no telling how many anti-choice mothers will at some point consider letting science help them become with child. From now on, not only is every sperm sacred, but every petri dish as well.

The crime rate is going down because "fighting" crime has become one of the big growth industries in America, and it will cook the books to prove that as we throw more and more money into it, it will get results.

(One result is that America now has a higher proportion of its population behind bars than Russia had during the height of its "gulags." California, which once had the greatest public university system in the world, now spends more money to keep people in prison than it does on higher ed. It's public school system has gone completely down the tubes, as it spends ever more money on prisons.)

So, it's easy to clear away the abortion and the crime smoke screen, and without a whole lot of effort we can clear away the next one, about how "60s radicalism" led the way (in the words of Judge Robert Bork) to a popular culture that is in a "free fall, with the bottom yet in sight." I know: it must be all us Granola babies getting rich off Warner Records, which made a fortune off gangsta rap.

It must also be all us "peaceniks," who marched against the Viet Nam War and then bought Columbia records (home for Bobby Dylan), encouraging the Japanese Sony Corporation to buy it in turn.

In short, pop culture is just another arm of the corporate culture, and you don't have to stir the smoke too hard to figure that one out. The kiddies, by the way, are now spending more money on video games than they are on records, movies, and comic books combined. This shows you how much influence queer Hollywood has on them: Pop goes the culture.

We can, likewise, blow off the next several smoke screens, those spooky places where Sullivan says "American conservatives lose sight of that central strain in their philosophy, when their love of freedom becomes an afterthought to their concern for morality," and then, even with Andrew still in the dark, we get to real bedrock.

This is where we separate the men from the conservative boy toys like Andrew Sullivan: The American class is now hardening in concrete. Whether you are straight, queer, bi, or trans, from Wyoming or Larchmont, you see it around you at every moment.

I could spin all the numbers and send them whirling back to you. (My favorite is that we are now, in terms of social mobility, the ability of the lower middle class to move into the upper middle class, about 17th in the world. During the 1970s, we were third. The stats go on and on: how many hours of work it takes a middle class family to stay middle class; the difference between public education and private; etc.)

But anyone who has traveled lately on a big airplane knows that the difference between Business/First Class and coach ("steerage") is now a lot more than peanuts.

They know that the lower middle class, i.e., what we call "working people" in America, are trapped in a depravation similar to the Depression, with no savings, very little to no health coverage, and barely minimal access to affordable housing. In most cases, they are three pay checks away from the streets. Kids from this class, when they aren't working at slave labor retail jobs, are in a constant state of depression (with what have become regular breakouts of violence, either towards themselves or others).

On the other hand, we now have a corporate class that is making obscene levels of money. Many corporate CEOs and their immediate underlings are making salaries in the hundreds of millions. (The lesser lights among them are making a paltry $3 or 4 mill, considered chump change out in Corp land.)

We have now entered fully into a completely "integrated" Corporate state, where everything is commodified and sold that way. So the difference between the new sofa you'll move into your vastly overpriced living room, TV news, book publishing, the movies and any other bits of information you're going to get are negligible. The sofa, the news, the book, etc., are all made by various divisions of the same corporation.

Example: the sofa, say, from This End Up, is actually owned by Citicorp Bank, now a division of the Citigroup, now being swallowed by Travelers Insurance, with its own links to numerous communications divisions.

After Judge Bork whines about gangsta rap, he will be wined at yet another black tie dinner with the CEOs of Sony, Warners, Random House (which now controls 30% of all New York book publishing and is owned by the Bertelsmen group, a German giant that could give a hoot less what it puts out, as long as the bottom line figures add up), etc.

So Andrew Sullivan can cry about the end of "real conservatism," and how gay ("individual rights") should fit into a "real" conservative agenda—which should happen about the same time I see John Paul II officiating at his first gay marriage—and it will not make a bit of difference, except to blow another smoke screen over what's happening.

In the meanwhile, we will witness more anti-gay violence as the lower middle class, which cannot see itself in the economic picture at all, sees only us. It is looking for a new nigger class to spit at and it's got us.

We will see the new "New Right" trying to revert to old standards (i.e., white, middle class styles of behavior; the "Return to the Fifties," when "girls were girls and men were men"), as it sends its kids to private schools and salivates over Ralph Lauren's recycled schmattas from the Golden Age of cocktails and white gloves.

And the kind of Corporate Feudalism that is now moving all the machinations will grind on, as its barons and earls smile all the way to the upper dining rooms of the brokerage houses, no matter what happens down below on Wall Street.
brassbook.gif - 19.20 KPerry Brass's newest book is How to Survive Your Own Gay Life. His political novel The Harvest, which dealt with the coming Corporate feudalism, was nominated for a 1997 Lambda Literary Award. He can be reached via his website

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